– notes, frequently asked questions and useful links from the archivist and curator of manuscripts at Balliol College, University of Oxford. Opinions expressed are the author's own.

mss survey



Pre-before: Last week came the final batch of new boxes for Balliol’s medieval manuscripts! or mostly medieval. And mostly codices. The mss were measured up by OCC and made by the Bodleian’s PADS department – we all use them a lot and their services are quick, reasonable and brilliant. They’ve worked out a good system with the conservators, who can also make boxes when necessary, but use PADS for anything that’s custom-measured but without special requirements.


Before: The assembled mss, most of which have had no packaging before at all. A few are being replaced, as their old boxes are not acid-free and/or don’t fit well, are wearing out, don’t provide adequate support or compression or padding, and so on. Some of the volumes still require conservation treatment, but it won’t change their dimensions in ways that will require a different box, so we can proceed with boxing now.


This boxing campaign, which was interrupted for quite a while due to conservation planning hitches at our end, is now complete in the sense that there are no longer ANY unboxed manuscripts on the shelves! Boxes are the first defense against climatic fluctuations and all kinds of damage. There are still boxes and heavy four-flap folders that don’t fit well or could do with changing for other reasons. We have some beautifully made drop-spine solander boxes with wool felt linings, which is not great for our high-friction decaying half-calf bindings and is attractive to pests.  So we’ll be looking at changing or modifying those in due course. But the first stage of ‘a box for every book’ is complete, a satisfying milestone in the many useful outcomes of our 2014 condition survey of the manuscripts.


This box-within-a-box is a cunning solution to a complex housing issue. A packet of unbound leaves sat under two small and rather dirty bound volumes inside this presentation box, lined with padded textiles and using ribbons to hoist the tightly-fitted package out of the lower part of the box. The new replacement gives an elegant nod to the ms’ history by retaining the arrangement of the former box (which will be retained as well, separately) but makes it easy to lift all parts of the contents out, and prevents the small volumes from knocking about with a card block inserted between them to fill the empty space.


The old box.


The presentation box was made to look like a book stored vertically – you can imagine this was not great for the contents, as the two small volumes were rather loose.


After: manuscripts in their new boxes, with a few of the old boxes/wrappers that have been replaced but will be retained for historical purposes at the back. They are part of the manuscripts’ history and in some cases are interesting examples of state-of-the-art work of their time.

Many thanks to PADS! On to the next stage…

manuscripts boxing

The benefits of last year’s condition survey of manuscript books continue apace: during last year’s manuscripts condition survey, we listed 155 manuscripts either unboxed or inadequately boxed. Boxing is a quick and effective – and relatively inexpensive, depending on the type of box – way to protect all kinds of archival material from light, dust and handling damage, as well as providing a certain amount of buffering from the environment.


First batch of 25 to be measured – these manuscripts are in good condition and require only light cleaning. Once they are boxed they will not need further conservation attention for a good long time, we hope. This will mean we can cross two dozen off our list of 155 quickly. The next tranches of mss will be measured in batches as well, in order according to how much repair they need, starting with those needing least binding repair, and avoiding those needing major text block repairs until the end. This isn’t just about getting through the list quickly: any change to the binding – and even some major interventions to the text block – may alter the outer shape of the book and therefore the box. Those will need treatment before they can be accurately measured for a box. Some may need a folder or wrapper in the interim.

The first lot of custom-made boxes has arrived from the Bodleian’s boxing and packaging department:DSCN9857

a surprisingly small package…


contains a certain number of boxes…


which are bigger on the inside than the outside! clever packing 🙂


contents, ready for boxing


one type of box – drop-spine, mostly used for larger, thicker or hardback volumes; several have string-and-washer closures on the fore edge for extra security and a little pressure to help keep the boards in shape

the other type, a robust four-flap folder, for thinner, smaller and soft-back volumes


all done – another two dozen manuscripts safer on the shelf and during production!

manuscripts survey PS

Another use of last spring and summer’s survey of the medieval manuscripts: a researcher wanting to consult a long list of manuscripts, not necessarily in a particular order, had them produced by size, starting with the smallest. Result: only one swap to a different-sized set of foam book support wedges needed in a whole day’s research.